Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, on HBO Max

Technically, these tapes weren’t lost, they were suppressed. The Soviet Union wanted to document their nuclear industry’s “finest hour” in the face of crisis, like NASA’s response to Apollo 13. However, when it became glaringly clear how ineffective, dishonest and counter-productive their crisis management was, to the powers-that-were (ultimately, that was Gorbachev), the Party reverted to censorship and propaganda to bury the truth. James Jones assembled the newly recovered footage into a vivid step-by-step chronicle of the nuclear disaster, as it really happened, in Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes, which premieres tonight on HBO.

Right from the start, the authorities’ disregard for human life is shocking apparent. We watch unprotected families allowed to visit playgrounds the day after the core melt-down and massive release of radiation. Several times, Jones contrasts footage of the oblivious citizenry with the desperate crisis management underway at the reactor.

This pattern would continue after the incident, when the Communist Party basically declared an end to Chernobyl-related illness by fiat, mandating all physicians diagnose resulting radiation sickness as “Radiophobia.” Jones also discovered damning footage of the under-equipped reclamation teams, who were dispatched to clean and close-down the V.I. Lenin Power Station with insufficient warning of the risks they were running. Viewers can make that judgement, because we literally see their superiors sending them out with a few sheets of lead strapped to their torsos (like “cannon-fodder,” as one survivor puts it).

If anyone truly emerges as a villain in
Lost Tapes, it would be Gorbachev, who lied to the world and to his people about the severity of the disaster, at great cost to Russian and Ukrainian lives. Far from the Soviet Nuclear bureaucracy’s “finest hour,” the incident almost blew up into a global catastrophe. Instead of slowing the reaction, an ill-conceived plan to drop sand on top of the reactor nearly caused it to collapse into earth beneath. There is a reason why the former General Secretary consistently polls so low in Russia.

Lost Tapes provides another reminder why Ukraine was so happy to gain its independence from the USSR (and has no wish to be reconquered by a neo-Soviet Russia). Regardless, throughout the film, Jones strikingly juxtaposes the reality of the disaster (which is plainly evident in the rediscovered footage) with the propaganda messages being disseminated at that moment. It is a stark and telling contrast.

Indeed, the construction of this documentary is remarkably well-thought-out and the images it preserves are devastating. This is a timely film that nicely compliments HBO’s five-part drama,
Chernobyl. In fact, it might be HBO’s best original programming of any kind since Chernobyl (or maybe The Outsider). Very highly recommended, Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes premieres tonight (6/22) on HBO and HBO Max.